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Finding a Better Way to Track Journalist Arrests in the United States

I spent a large part of 2011 and 2012 compiling a day by day detailed report of journalists who had been arrested at Occupy protests. In each case, I tried to track down multiple sources for confirmation, sought to detail the circumstances and capture a bit of the story of how the arrest happen, and then from there track what happened to the journalist in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time I launched a series of campaigns with Free Press, calling for cities across the United States to drop charges against journalists and defend First Amendment protections for journalists covering protests.

So when three journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of August people began sending me tips. I was away from my computer and couldn’t track the breaking news as well as I would have liked, but thankfully as the week went on – and more reports of journalist arrests and press suppression poured in – others took up the charge and helped track these issues.

At the time of writing there are three lists tracking attacks on the press in and around Ferguson, Missouri. Each is taking a somewhat different approach and reports a different total number depending their definition of who is a journalist.

There is an important debate to be had here about who gets counted in these sorts of efforts, and who gets left out. I’ll save that debate for another post, but if you are interested I suggest reading this and this as a starting place.

After a year of tracking, I began to run up against the limitations of a tool like Storify for long-term on-going coverage. Even the lists above, with social media embedded in them, begin to get a bit long and unwieldy, after just a week or two.

At one point I had been in conversation with Chis and Laura Amico about adapting their Homicide Watch platform to track journalists arrests and press suppression in the United States. As 2012 came to an end and the Occupy protests slowed, so too did the journalist arrests and my discussions with Homicide Watch got put on the back burner.

However, after watching the events of this week, I’m reminded of how useful such a system would be. This is a project that lends itself to the kind of structured data journalism that Homicide Watch has pioneered.

If you are interested in this idea, I’d love to talk more about it. I’m not in a position to make it happen right now, but I’d be happy to advise and support another organization who wanted to take it on. If you are interested, here are a few other relevant links:

Disclosure: I’m a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation but have had little to do with their current journalist arrest tracking effort.

Photo of journalist John Knefel being arrested during an Occupy protest in 2011, by Jessica Lehrman used via CC license.

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